Sunday, February 28, 2010

WAR DANCES: short stories by Sherman Alexie

I often call short stories the “popcorn” of literature. But that doesn’t mean I read short stories as light ephemeral pieces of work! No, short stories can offer quite a bit to mull over and chew on.

Take today’s collection by Sherman Alexie as an example…

The opening story of WAR DANCES could be ripped from any town’s headlines - a man is alone in his house when he hears someone breaking into his basement, confronts the intruder and unintentionally kills him. By taking us into the guilt ridden conscience of the young homeowner, Alexie gives us so much more than just a sad story – we’re offered the chance to commiserate (and agonize) with one man who has killed another (in this case the intruder into his home). Though he is not charged with any crime, the protagonist we suffer with our protagonist as he feels remorse and self-anger at what he sees as the cupidity and randomness of the situation in which he finds himself.

The title story, “War Dances” gyrates between a young father’s mounting concerns over his sudden hearing loss and memories of his father’s recent death in a sterile modern hospital. The suddenly hearing impaired young father rediscovers the comforts of his Native American traditions even as his father lay dying.

Yet another short story in this collection, “The Senator’s Son” plunks us smack into a tense exchange between a US Senator with presidential ambitions and his lawyer son. The son’s act of random violence committed against, ironically, his best childhood friend, sets up a tense interchange of blame and guilt, climaxing with this riveting statement: “If it is true that children pay for the sins of their fathers, is it also true that fathers pay for the sins of their children?”

In WAR DANCES Sherman Alexie writes from his experience as a Native American living in modern day Seattle , writing in a way that invites all of us into his stories. He is a great example of writing fluidly and expressively from one’s own experience – and in so doing allowing the rest of us to experience a world view that may not be our own but is nonetheless compelling and interesting.

I join with other reviewers and critics in finding Alexie’s work eclectic, intriguing and page-turning. Perhaps a reviewer for the Seattle Post put it best when she wrote: “Sherman Alexie mixes up comedy and tragedy, shoots it through with tenderness, then delivers with a provocateur’s don’t-give-a-damn flourish. He’s unique, and his new book, War Dances, is another case in point.” — Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times. I hope you give Sherman Alexie a read and see if you don't agree!

STEP BY STEP: A pedestrian memoir by Lawrence Block

Many of us know Lawrence Bloch through one (or more) of the many quirky characters he has created in his many mystery novels: international spy Evan Tanner, New York City private detective Matthew Scudder, hit-man-for-hire John Keller or my favorite - almost-reformed burglar/used bookstore owner Bernie Rhoddenbar. In today’s book, Block introduces us to an equally fascinating character – himself! STEP BY STEP is a delightful read of the journeys of a modern American life – the pedestrian memoirs of an inquiring mind.

Block is as charming, wry and as folksy as ever when writing about his life as a observant pedestrian and as a skilled runner – from his youth to the present day, offering us ample stories of the many marathons, races and journeys he has taken across the country and the world - check out his memories of the 3 month, 650 mile journey over the Pyrenees – the famed Camino De Santiago. It's a great one-chapter example of his writing, observation and walking skills. Too, I hope you'll take the time to read the chapter in which Block and his wife decide to pursue the elusive towns named Buffalo - and end up touring the American countryside - by foot and by car - from Florida to Colorado and beyond.

More than a "pedestrian" read, STEP BY STEP may set us all on our won open-eyed wanderings across the continent and beyond!

Monday, December 28, 2009

A HOMEMADE LIFE : a great read from Molly Wizenberg

With "A Homemade Life" author Molly Wizenberg continues a trend first successful with the book “Julie and Julia” – a foodie blog brought to life in book form. Like “Julie and Julia” Wizenberg writes invitingly about her years in the kitchen and the many life-happenings that result from her delight in cooking. But unlike its successful predecessor, “A Homemade Life” takes us on a world-wide food journey, grounded in Wizenberg’s growing up years in Oklahoma, her college years in San Francisco and her contemporary life with husband (and fellow foodie Brandon) in Seattle - but spanning the Atlantic to take us on an extended visit to Paris - city of lights, food and romance - as well.

Meandering with Wizenberg in these pages we’re treated to many mouth-watering homemade recipes - the stuff most of us grew up eating and enjoying – and glimpses into Wizenberg’s life and travels as well. She takes us deep into the heart of her family, sharing the many joys (her romantic encounters both in the US and abroad, in Paris, are delightful reads for example) and, as this is a book based on real life, we share the sadnesses of her family too.

Holiday notes abound in the book but you won’t find one chapter devoted to Christmas or any other one holiday. Nor will you find the traditional “meats and poultry”, “fish”, "veggies", or "desserts"….type of organization either (albeit there is a nifty index in the back). Instead we DO find a wonderful mish mash of goodies that have brought joy or special meaning into Wizenberg’s life – and of course, hopefully into ours!

And hey, there’s a hint of Indiana in these pages too – check out the recipe for “Hoosier Pie” early on in the book – and have a bottle of high class bourbon on hand – Wizenberg assures us it’s a key ingredient for this Hoosier named treat!

In the end Wizenberg’s is an upbeat tale, featuring an author and a family that celebrate the good times with conviviality and with food - a book that only gets better the more we read.

For a special treat check out the blog that started it all: http://orangette.blogspot.com/

and catch her monthly column in "bon appetite" magazine (available at the WL Public Library).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Worked in a service job? You'll enjoy WAITER RANT....

Yes, hot on the heels of the books JULIE AND JULIA and Anthony Bourdain’s KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL we have a new, engaging – if cynical – insight into the world of lower income service jobs – WAITER RANT.

WAITER RANT reads as much as a contemporary confessional novel as the nonfiction rant of a thirty something waiter it claims to be. And this story-telling is what raises WATIER RANT from a mere collection of blog posts to an engaging, page turning read. The author’s well honed writing skills – he’s been writing a waiter blog for years - and it's on display often in these pages.

Our nameless author pulls us into his tale from the start, relating to us his disaffection with his efforts to become a priest at a seminary where he grew cynical about the ways of the contemporary church; leaving his path to the ministry our author next offers us his erstwhile attempt to offer ethical, caring care to the mentally challenged, a series of jobs which left him still in his 20’s and fed up with duplicity of the health care system. Down on his luck, willing to take just about any temporary employment as a way to make money – we get to the core of this tale – our authors’ fiery plunge into the world of waiting tables in the world of New York City’s fine dining – an experience that he relates with humor and not a little sarcasm.

Our author goes on to become the manager of a new fine dining establishment in a nearby upscale town – he labels it “The Bistro” in his blog and this book – and finds that managing a restaurant is more daring and challenging that he at first thought. As we read we’re offered his thoughts on any number of dining topics – some of the most cutting and hilarious revolving around the less than stellar impact on American dining life caused by the success of the FOOD CHANNEL and its 24 hour/7 day a week superstars and the development in the American dining world of a type of diner our author labels “foodies”.

WAITER RANT ends, appropriately enough, with “in your face” recommendations to those of us who dine out - a part of the book not to be missed!

All of this said let me give you fair warning – WAITER RANT is NOT for the faint of heart – the language can be salty, the subjects at times more “adult” than “family” and this former seminarian proves his cynicism with his sometimes caustic view of humanity.

Yet for all its 21st century sarcasm, WAITER RANT is as one critic wrote “never overbearing and certainly never self-righteous”. One critic of the book even compares it favorably to the runaway-hit TV show THE OFFICE… ”parts of the book were just flat out funny, in that kind of way that Office Space is funny to those who work in the corporate world.”

As is becoming usual, if you’re intrigued by my review of WAITER RANT I invite you to launch yourself into the reviews found at the major internet book sites – some these folks are writing their OWN books as they review this one – WAITER RANT is that inspiring to some readers! Maybe you'll feel that way about WAITER RANT too?

Listen to the review here WBAA radio website.
Listen here: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wbaa/.jukebox?action=featured

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do you like bugs?

If so you will be fascinated with our “500 Insects: a Visual Reference” by Stephen A. Marshall. Like all the Firefly Books I have read it is a well done reference book. Marshall leads off with a good introduction, explaining the incredible number of identified insect species (over 1 million) compared to the estimated number of insect species (1.7 million) and leading it to the explanation of the taxonomy of insect names. Even with this amazing number of insects, he explains that they fall into 4 recognizable orders: Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (wasps), Coleoptera (beetles) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). He explains how you will find similar species around the globe in similar habitats. He rounds out the introduction with sections on collecting and photography as well as basic bug biology and structure. All that before we get to the beautiful photographs that make up the bulk of the material.

The photographs are grouped by orders, families and sub-families, with one page dedicated to each insect. In addition to the close-up photograph of each insect you find some interesting information about the order and family.

Friday, August 21, 2009

1942 - Pearl Harbor as it might have been? by Robert Conroy

It's 1942 and the Japanese have successfully invaded and taken Hawai'i, making it part of the Japanese empire.

Americans in occupied Hawai'i, the halls of power in Washington DC and the military labs of California respond with cunning, out-of-the-box action and a dash of on-the-run romance. Their Japanese counterparts meanwhile learn that winning a battle is only the beginning of the struggle to hold onto what they've won. With fictionalized appearances by President Franklin Roosvelt, Admiral Yammamoto and a cast of other significant - if fictional- characters 1942 is a novel of nonstop action and romance.

1942 may be "alternative history" but it rings true with its' characters very human emotions of love, patriotism, greed, and evil.

What a read!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reading from the old "Axis of Evil"

Presidents and foreign policies may change but I still get a kick out of reading books about cultures we in the West don’t study much – while we may not refer to an "axis of evil" in 2009 we're still not likely to know much about North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and a few other nations not deemed to be good friends of the USA.

So to learn more about those places that often shrouded in mystery in the past couple of years I’ve dipped my toes into such books as “Literature from the Axis of Evil” and “In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar – the latter novel is set in modern day Libya.

My newest read took me to the so called “hermit kingdom” of North Korea – by way of a mystery/detective story related by one Inspector O, a detective in the North Korean People’s Security Service. Written by a former Western “operative” stationed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the book rings true in its depiction of life in a closed society.

The world in which Inspector O works is a world of shadows and shifting shapes, a world in which not much is what it seems to be, where the Inspector and those with whom he works must be vigilant for the slightest of telltale signs – warning flags as O succinctly calls them.

O is given a case by the higher-ups in the People’s Security Service that he finds implausible at first – a daring daylight robbery of Pyongyang’s only bank. But the more O investigates the bank robbery – and soon two murders – the more O becomes aware that he has two stark choices: solve the bank robbery and the murders quickly or be sucked into a maelstrom of evil that he will need more than luck and skill to survive. In a land where the surface often hides a murky depth, HIDDEN MOON takes O much deeper into the violent world of North Korean politics than the police inspector ever wished to go.

The character of O is drawn with care and discerning by author James Church. A man truly committed to his work, O lives as keenly when out walking his beat as when in his sparsely configured office – O’s apartment, in a building overseen by a gruff and inquisitive female gatekeeper, is an afterthought in a very thoughtful life. And since there is not a lot of radio or TV going in O’s life (nor, I suspect from the book’s presentation, not in North Korea as a whole), O has time to think about stuff – and while thinking O’s favorite way to focus is by stroking, sanding or carving odd pieces of wood he has picked up over the years.

Allow me to note that there is no internet to intrude into O's world either (heck, O has trouble figuring out his cell phone much less the vastness of the ‘net – not a lot of folks seem to have cell phones in North Korea and O’s frustration with his own phone finds little solace from the few other North Korean officials who DO have one of the government issued noise makers).

O’s life is filled with characters, as any good detective novel will have. There’s Min, O’s chief - a man whose natural inclination to worry is reinforced by his weekly immersion into the People’s Republic’s political bureaucracy; the lovely Miss Chon, a mysterious banker from that aforementioned bank that was robbed – Miss Chon claims to hail from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan but O learns Miss Chon has no official background – no “file” in the North Korean police bureaucracy – unheard of for a woman not native to the fatherland. And top it all off we come to a hulking fellow from Scotland. He introduces himself to O as a detective newly arrived in Pyongyang to handle security for a soon-to-be-visiting British dignitary – sent because our Scotsman is a European with some limited Korean language skills. He makes Inspector O’s life (and O's crime investigations) yet more complicated with his larger-than-life personality and presence.

The North Korea portrayed in HIDDEN MOON is a human-ized land. Yes, there are plenty of moments when one realizes we’re not reading a mystery set in Tokyo, or New York, Paris, Rio, Cairo or Beijing. But that said there we read of young lovers sitting together at sunset on benches along the city’s river; Club Blue offers enough vice and underworld action to fit into any good detective story.

Yet at the same time Pyongyang is portrayed as having an obviously limited evening social life (though there IS an after hours bar scene), not many plane flights in or out (the arrival of a key character – the Scotsman - on a private plane throws off O and his boss who are accustomed to the weekly arrival and departure of visitors not the sudden appearance of a foreigner!), and the threat of a immediate posting to the “countryside” or the mountains (far from urban Pyongyang in more ways than just geography) is a real threat that looms in the background of O and the men and women with whom he interacts.

HIDDEN MOON is the second in what is now a continuing series of detective novels set in the North Korean capital – and we know the series is doing well when we learn that the newest Inspector O novel is available now in large print as well as regular print size.

Inspector O is a fellow I’ve come to appreciate – the kind of guy I might want to have a beer with – if I enjoyed drinking beer!

NOTE: You can listen to my book reviews on WBAA radio. Go to the "Arts and Culture" section of the website. Let me know what you think of my comments!